Feature interview: Imarhan at Spacebar

Joel Oliphint

Tuareg group Tinariwen has become synonymous with the desert blues, and for good reason. The Malian band introduced its guitar-based, southern Sahara sound to a global audience, growing in popularity the last 15 years and eventually releasing a series of albums on Anti-/Epitaph.

But Tinariwen has technically been around since 1979, and there's a new generation of desert blues musicians carrying the torch, with Algerian act Imarhan leading the way.

Imarhan, which translates to “the ones who care about me,” formed in 2008 while taking lessons from the elder statesmen in Tinariwen. Imarhan lead singer and guitarist Iyad Moussa Ben Abderahmane, aka Sadam, received a guitar as a gift from his cousin, Tinariwen bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, and at one point Sadam reportedly subbed for Tinariwen founder/guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib on tour.

Imarhan's self-titled 2016 debut album introduced the band as the next wave of Tuareg musicians, and just as striking as the group's soulful, vibrant, meditative sound was the band's appearance. They looked like rock stars.

“We just want to dress how we feel, depending on our moods. We dress like we dress every day in Tamanrasset, [Algeria],” Sadam said via email through a translator. “We mix both traditional clothes and everyday clothes.”

In a much-anticipated visit to Ohio, Imarhan will play a free show at Spacebar on Saturday, May 5 (the concert functions as a pre-party for the Nelsonville Music Festival, taking place later this month). The band is touring in support of its sophomore effort,Temet, released earlier this year. Although Tinariwen's Eyadou Ag Leche again produced the album, the new record is an evolution, using the desert blues sound as a foundation for the building blocks of funk and rock.

“Tinariwen were the first Tuareg band to tour all around the world and to spread the Tuareg culture. We are very respectful and grateful for what they brought to our community and to us as a Tuareg band,” Sadam said. “As on the debut album, Eyadou shared with us ideas to structure our songs, the way we play them, too. And some songs onTemet are his own compositions, like ‘Azzaman' and ‘Tuchal.' … [But] we feel our sound is different. We like mixing different styles to the Tuareg blues. Maybe because we've been connected to the world being young, through the internet, we've listened to many different styles. ... We want our music to always evolve.”

“Temet” translates to “connections,” a concept that Imarhan threads through the album. “Keeping the connections within your community and with your neighbor should help in facing today's issues,” Sadam said. “The world is like a little house where people should all be connected to each other, no matter their culture, religion or origin.”

Those connections, though, aren't always easy to make, especially in a homeland that has been ravaged by war and civil unrest. ThroughoutTemet's songs, Imarhan repeatedly raises questions: “Where has all the goodwill gone?” “How come we cannot achieve unity?” “Why can't we come together?”

But these are not merely songs of lament, nor does Imarhan simply send these questions out into the ether. The musicians aim their inquiries directly at each other and at their countrymen.

“‘Ma S-abok,' which is a song I particularly like on the album, talks about those questions,” Sadam said. “Most of our songs talk about [connections] and about the need of solidarity. [They are] songs to awake consciousness on these matters. … As long as you are asking yourself questions, nothing is lost. It means that you are open for a change, and things can evolve.”

On leadoff track “Azzaman,” a pulsating, percussive, liquid-blues rocker that radiates like the white-hot heat of the Sahara, Imarhan sings, “The indifference of a community is the ruin of its own culture.” That indifference, Sadam said, is not limited to Tuareg culture. “We absolutely feel the indifference for everyone's own culture is a problem for every society today,” he said. “You need to respect your own culture in order to respect your fellow man and your neighbor.”

This yearning for mutual respect and connection isn't just a pipe dream for Imarhan. The musicians have hope that it can actually happen. “Our community should be able to be united and to flourish again,” Sadam said. “It's a small community. Its main issues are the many borders it has, with five different countries, and especially the lack of means. Keeping the connections within our community and with the neighbors can give this hope. It's through the solidarity that you can find hope.”


8 p.m. Saturday, May 5

2590 N. High St., Old North


ALSO PLAYING: Water Witches